The Polymath’s Dilemma: Or the Curse of Hyperspecialization


Yesterday and Today

Today’s workplace is a challenging place for polymaths. As a matter of fact, the 20th and 21st centuries have been pretty rough on them. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were famous polymaths in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the fictional character Sherlock Homes was one too. Each was highly esteemed by their contemporaries for having deep levels of expertise in seemingly unrelated subjects, but what about polymaths today? Purportedly, the actor James Franco is a polymath, although you may want to reserve judgment until someone other than his student advisor at Yale produces actual proof.

What exactly is a polymath?

The term isn’t much in common usage today. A brief Merriam Webster definition is, “someone who knows a lot about many different things.” No, we’re not talking about your Uncle Max or your friend with a PhD in classical studies or Alex Trebec. They may wax eloquent on a number of subjects, but at least in Alex’s case he has a homecourt advantage. Being a polymath isn’t about knowing trivia, or believing you knowsomething, it’s about expertise.

I like the current Wikipedia definition: “[a]polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” For example, Jefferson had demonstrated expertise as an agriculturalist, anthropologist, architect, astronomer, diplomat, geographer, inventor, lawyer, mathematician, meteorologist, musician . . . and the list goes on. He was also fluent in six languages. We’re not talking Uncle Max. We’re not even talking about a generalist who dabbles in several areas. Being a polymath is about demonstrated expertise in a wide range of subjects. Not multi-talented, such as a singer/dancer/actor in the theatre, but multi-mastery of diverse fields, like Judge Richard Posner, who is also a literary critic, economist, political theorist and philosopher.

So what’s the dilemma?

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when manufacturing processes placed a high value on the repetition of a narrow number of tasks, our workplaces have becomeincreasingly specialized. In a 2010 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Big Idea: The Age of Hyperspecialization”, the authors actually celebrate this trend by concluding that, “Quality improves when more of the work that goes into a finalproduct is done by people who are good at it.”

Is this true?

While it may seem like a no-brainer on the surface, hyperspecialization can create big problems when the specialists lack proper vision. In his foreword to Order out of Chaos [Prigogine and Stengers, 1984] Alvin Toffler wrote: “One of the most highly developed skills in contemporary Western civilization is dissection: the split-up of problems into their smallest possible components. We are good at it. So good, we often forget to put the pieces back together again. This skill is perhaps most finely honed in science. There we not only routinely break problems down into bite-sized chucks and mini-chunks, we then very often isolate each one from its environment by means of a useful trick. We say ceteris paribus – all other things being equal. In this way we can ignore the complex interactions between our problem and the rest of the universe.”

I’ve had recent experience with this in a business context with company who hired outside specialists to crunch data. Yes, those specialists could crunch tons of data, but had little idea as to how to structure their queries in a way that could yield workable strategies. You might say, “crunch the data first, ask questions later,” but as Nate Silver stresses in his book, The Signal and the Noise [Penguin Books, 2015], the ability to ask the right questions and to question one’s own assumptions is what accurate predictions are all about. That type of questioning takes multiple strategic perspectives and a much broader range of knowledge than creating a statistical model. But what if you’re the person who has the range and depth of knowledge to ask those multi-faceted questions, then frame the questions as hypothetical strategies, then detail the assumptions and model the data?

In other words what if you’re good, really good, at a lot things?

If you are, the 21st century workplace is a real downer. I’ve worked with over 40 companies as a consultant and/or employee and have seen two conflicting patterns between hiring practices and the reality of employment. These patterns set up the polymaths among us for failure.

Job postings and position descriptions seem like a polymath’s dream. The hiring manager typically includes a litany of skills that only a few people in the Western Hemisphere truly have the ability to perform at an expert level – and HR lets the hiring manager get away with padding that list.

And then:

If the company is fortunate enough to actually hire that dream person, any range of expertise that strays outside of the stated job title and the narrow scope it implies will be promptly forgotten. In reality, the actual job will be hyper-specialized down to a handful of the skills described in the original job posting. Why? “Because we have other people or outside consultants who do that for us,” is generally the answer.

For example, the job description says that brand development is a necessary skill, and yet when it comes time to actually develop the brand, outside expertise is almost always valued above any recent hire’s. Even when that hire has an unassailable record of achievement in brand development. Why? Because outside consultants have more internal credibility than an employee, any employee, no matter how skilled.

There are notable exceptions to this. The smaller the company, the less specialized the job. But when you hear, “you’ll wear a lot of hats here” that often translates to, “we don’t have the money to hire more people or consultants, so buckle up.” That type of workplace that may actually appeal to a true polymath, provided that the job requirement “wide range of expertise” doesn’t translate to stuffing and licking envelopes.

Google It

Most, but not all, larger companies may have given up a significant competitive advantage with increased hyperspecialization. In his book “Work Rules!” Google SVP Laszlo Bock wrote the following about Google’s policy of allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to their own projects:

“In some ways, the idea of 20 percent time is more important than the reality of it,” he writes. “It operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can’t be forced to work.”

Read more:

Not every employee will take advantage of the 20 percent project time, or any time outside 9-5 for that matter. But for a polymath, a person who thrives on using “complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems,” being allowed to flex several skills at once on a self-motivated project, without being pigeonholed by management is a dream come true. And if Google offers any proof, it can be a dream come true for the company too in terms of retaining and motivating the most innovative talent.

So as a non-Google manager, what can I do to attract and retain innovative talent?

1) Stop playing Lucy and the football with job descriptions. Don’t ask for the skills of a polymath for jobs that are really specialized unless you truly intend to use those skills and not farm them out. And HR – please confront hiring managers who pad job descriptions but don’t allow employees to use their expertise.

2) During the interview process, probe for areas of demonstrated expertise that might not be reflected on the resume. Polymaths often hide these “non-essential” skills, because most employers don’t value them. Imagine Thomas Jefferson today listing all those skills on a resume for the job “politician.” If the person you’re interviewing has other “non-essential” skills ask them how they might apply them to benefit your company, not just the job description you’ve created. Their answers might surprise and delight you.

3) If you truly want rule-breaking, self-disruptive, game-changing innovation, something valued by only a few forward-thinking companies and managers, then a) hire yourself a polymath, b) assign her or him projects that call upon those multiple areas of expertise and c) allocate some of the polymath’s time to creating blue sky or, as Google calls them, “moonshot” projects. Treat that time like you would the top of an investment pyramid, i.e. the tip of the pyramid devoted to high risk and high reward investments.

And the reward?

You’ll have a highly motivated, multi-mastery employee – and you just might reach the moon.

Author Curt Powell is a Chicago consultant, strategic marketer, composer, playwright and analytics expert who helps companies find the chewy center of marketing innovation, big data and customer engagement. He is co-author with Bill Jerome of The Disposable Visionary: A Survival Guide for Change Agents, [Praeger ABC-CLIO, January, 2016].

Want to rock the boat without getting fired?